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3 October 2016 Edition

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Al-Araqib – The village that refuses to be consigned to oblivion

Eyewitness Palestine: Alan Short spent nearly six months in the West Bank, where he worked with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions

• The buried remains of one of the homes in Al-Araqib

The Israeli Lands Authority escalated its efforts in July 2010 when, together with 1,500 police officers, it demolished the entire village

ONLY the tattered pieces of tarpaulin and broken planks of wood hint at the destruction, protruding from mounds of earth and appearing incongruous with the landscape, as though placed by a giant.

‘M’ shows us the buried remains of one of the homes in Al-Araqib.

“Each of the mounds was one of our homes. They use bulldozers to bury them. The sticks and cloth are all that’s left,” ‘M’ tells us.

Aside from a cemetery and a few makeshift tents, this is all that remains of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Al-Araqib, demolished by the Israeli authorities for the 102nd time that Sunday. Situated in the north-east of the Negev desert, Al-Araqib is at the forefront of the Israeli state’s long-running campaign to drive the Bedouin, a semi-nomadic people, from their lands.

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Former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion

“Negev land is reserved for Jewish citizens, whenever and wherever they want,” former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion explained to his son, Amos, in 1937. “We must expel Arabs and take their places . . . and if we have to use force, then we have force at our disposal – not in order to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev and Transjordan but in order to guarantee our own right to settle in those places.”

An opportunity to ‘de-Arabise’ the land arose with the outbreak of war in 1948, when the majority of the Negev’s population of 110,000 were expelled by the nascent Israeli Army. Most fled out of fear but many were forcibly deported on trucks to nearby Egypt and Jordan, a policy that continued in the immediate aftermath of the war. 

Their ethnic cleansing, along with 650,000 other Palestinians, was instrumental in creating a state with a large Jewish majority, the core aim of political Zionism.

Those Bedouin that remained in the Negev, some 11,000, were seen as an ‘internal enemy’. Despite being granted Israeli citizenship, between 1948 and 1966 they were subjected to draconian military rule, their rights and movements heavily curtailed.

During this period, the Bedouin were herded into the Negev’s north-eastern tip, an area known as “The Siyag”. Many, including the residents of Al-Araqib, were assured this would be a temporary measure and that they would be allowed to return to their lands in time, but the promise was never kept. Their exile became permanent.

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•  Most Bedouin were expelled from their Negev home in 1948

Bedouin population growth sparked fierce debate in the 1960s. A plan was devised by the Israeli Government to concentrate the Bedouin in seven “government-recognised” villages (or ‘townships’) within the Siyag, thereby further limiting the Bedouins’ encroachment on land “reserved for Jewish citizens”.

Typically, the plan was given a benevolent sheen. The Bedouins, the Government declared, had to be brought into the 21st century. The new towns, it was claimed, would provide access to “proper schools and medical care”.

In reality, the townships were built with minimal investment. High levels of unemployment, poverty, disease and crime naturally followed, recalling, in all too uncomfortable ways, the conditions found on the Aboriginal reserves in northern Australia. According to a State Comptroller report from 2002, the infrastructure in the seven townships had not improved much over the course of three decades.

Most of Al-Araqib’s residents ended up in Rahat, a township close to their lands. Throughout this period, they petitioned the courts several times to have their ownership rights formally recognised but their case was ignored. The village land remained vacant until, in 1998, the Jewish National Fund expressed an interest in using it for forestry. Fearing permanent loss, the residents decided to return. Since then, the state has been waging an unremitting campaign to dislodge them.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Israeli Lands Authority (ILA) began aerially spraying the villagers’ crops with a toxic herbicide. Crops died but so did animals: some 1,500 sheep and 16 horses were poisoned. Many of Al-Araqib’s residents also complained of illness. In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court deemed the practice illegal following a petition by Adalah, an Israeli human rights group. Since then, Adalah notes: “The state has resorted to annually ploughing up the crops with reports of the fields being poisoned in order to threaten the villagers’ livelihoods.”

The ILA escalated its efforts in July 2010 when, together with 1,500 police officers, it demolished the entire village – 46 structures, including 30 homes, were razed, leaving the villagers, half of them children, without shelter. 

Following the demolition, many of the villagers were displaced, ending up back in Rahat, but a handful of families remained, vowing to rebuild in spite of the government’s best efforts to expel them.

Over the next two years they faced a further 45 demolitions. On one occasion, the ILA uprooted 4,500 olive tree saplings. Many were replanted on neighbouring Jewish settlements, evoking widespread condemnation, at least within the Palestinian Arab community.

“We went to the ILA and asked them about the trees,” recalls Sheikh Siyakh al-Turi, the village figurehead. “We asked how they were allowed to replant them on settlements. They simply responded by saying that the land was theirs so they could do what they wanted with the trees.”

“They behave like a mafia,” he says,  “only they are much more organised.”

In March 2012, after six years of deliberation, a district court ruled against the villagers, claiming they did not possess sufficient documentation – dating back to the Ottoman and British Mandate period – to prove ownership of the land. The judge presiding over the case ignored the intricate historical reasons why the Bedouin chose not register their land with the authorities. Chief among these was a desire to avoid crippling taxes, which the Ottomans were particularly inclined towards.

Remarking on the absurdity of the ruling, Oren Yiftachel, a key witness for the plaintiffs and one of Israel’s foremost geographers and social scientists, noted the fact that “most researchers agree that two to three million dunam [a dunam is roughly quarter of an acre] were cultivated by the Bedouin in the early 20th century, which gives them land rights. Yet the court claimed that no Bedouin settlement and rights existed then.

“Where did the Bedouin farmers live?’ he asked, rhetorically. “In mid-air?

“If they want evidence they should come here and check the bones in the village cemetery,” says Sheikh Siyakh. “My grandfather is buried here, a fact no one can deny. Where is [Israeli Defence Minister] Lieberman’s grandfather buried? That’s right, somewhere in the Ukraine!”

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• Sheikh Siyakh al-Turi

But the ILA was only emboldened by the court ruling, promising to do all in its power “to keep state land from trespassers”, a veiled reference to the residents of Al-Araqib who, despite losing the case, resolved to stay.

In the last four years, Al-Araqib has been demolished a further 55 times. The ILA has also slapped the villagers with multiple fines – some amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars – and many have faced jail time.

So why do they stay?

“This is our land. Our ancestors were here. We have lived on this land for 500 years. If we leave, if we are forced into the townships, we will lose our whole identity,” says Sheikh Siyakh.

It is a sentiment echoed by the other 45 ‘unrecognised’ Bedouin villages in the Negev. They too are resisting the Israeli state’s efforts to ‘relocate’ them in government townships, articulated most recently in the Prawer Plan, which seeks to cleanse 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouins from their ancestral lands.

Some Israelis, however, are pointing out the dangers inherent in such an uncompromising approach. By marginalising the Bedouin and by excluding them from decision-making regarding their future, the state, Ami Ayalon (former head of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet) argues, “will create a process in which they [the Bedouin] will become a [security] threat”.

To avert disaster, Israel must, he argues, change its behaviour towards the state’s minority populations. However, given the dominance of the political Right and their continued commitment to Jewish settlement in the Negev, the likelihood of such a change is not in the offing. Violence may possibly feature in the Negev over the coming years – a prospect that doesn’t bear thinking about.

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